Oh bugger! This is going to be a test of my diplomacy skills!
The 2013 Six Nations reaches it’s finale with a game to really whet the appetite. The turgid rugby we have seen over the course of this year’s tournament will be forgotten as all eyes focus on a Championship shootout in Cardiff.
Italy vs Ireland
I will start this week’s predictions with the game in Rome. Either team could end up with the wooden spoon should they lose and France win in Paris. Injuries have severely hampered the Irish campaign and perhaps their regions performances in Europe have overstated the true depth of the talent at their disposal? Or perhaps a more accurate assessment is that the Irish coaches have been too slow at bringing new blood through and are now suffering the consequences of having to select a lot of young players at once. Italy have performed well in two games this year and may feel a little disappointed to just have 2 points to show for their efforts so far. They have struggled to put together back to back performances but this weekend represents a real opportunity to cement last week’s progress with a result. They must continue in the same attacking vein as they finished at HQ. I felt the temporary return of the influential Sexton allied to a few players needing big performances to enhance their Lions chances would see an Irish win but I think the subsequent withdrawal of Sexton has tipped the game back the other way.
I think a focused Italy will beat a nervous Ireland to win by 3-5 points.
France vs Scotland
The final game of the tournament comes from Paris where Scotland go looking for a third win whilst Les Bleus look to avoid the Wooden Spoon (I wonder what odds you would have got on that at the start of proceedings?). I feel Scotland have been talked up above what they have actually brought to this year’s 6N. They have played minimal positive rugby (granted they are not alone on that front) yet have ground out two wins due to two abject displays from Italy and Ireland. They were soundly beaten by both England and Wales and their selection for Paris hints that they will continue to be pragmatic rather than look to develop any attacking ideals. France, simply need to win. As a result I doubt we will see the home side play with the attacking joie de vivre that has been demonstrated in Paris in the springtime in past years.
With the weather likely to be wintry, I expect another war of attrition but the off form French still have the greater power and try scoring threat and I think they will win by 9-12 points in the final analysis.
Wales vs England
In my first blog this year I predicted the following:-
“I do not think we will see a Grand Slam this year. There are certainly some tough away fixtures for each and I believe that all teams will drop at least one game. I think the potential winners may be the team that wins four out of five and has the best point’s differential come the end of the tournament”.
For that to come true, Wales would need to win and then the focus would then be on margin.
Do I see any need to change that initial prediction? I think the teams are so well matched and the match so finely balanced that a case can be made for any of the potential outcomes. Have England handed the initiative to Wales by not putting the Championship out of reach last Sunday? Or will the pressure of knowing that they can retain the title with a 7/8 point win play on the Welsh mindset?
The selections have been made and reading between the lines it would seem that both teams are determined to carry on in the same vein as they have in the tournament to date. England have resisted the call to broaden their horizons by retaining Barritt at the expense of Twelvetrees whilst the recalls of Marler, Croft and Farrell were widely expected. The bench selection has been made to bring impact as the game moves into the third and fourth quarter.
The recall of Croft I think is telling. He is an excellent line out forward (particularly on the opposition throw) and given that Wales have gone with two open sides in the back row at the expense of a replacement lineout option (for injured captain Jones), expect England to target the Welsh lineout. I also expect England to catch and drive more on their own throw to negate the Warburton/Tipuric threat at the breakdown. This in turn will allow Farrell the flexibility to kick directly to touch as England seek territorial advantage and force line outs. From there I expect England to take whatever scores they can as they know any kind of win gives them the Slam.
Wales will hope that their tactical selection gives them an advantage at the breakdown, which will no doubt be a crucial area on Saturday. If they can get the upper hand at the tackle then this may at last allow the Welsh to generate the quicker ball their underused backline crave. If they do that then the home side is in business. They may also look to exploit the defensive frailties of Ashton by turning him with their kicking game or by trying to get the explosive North running at him. Ashton enjoyed his last trip to Cardiff but expect him to be targeted.
I hope that the game is won by the team that plays to its potential and can perhaps throw off the pressure of the occasion to score some tries, or one moment of magic from either side tips the balance. However, with what has gone before in this championship I have an uneasy feeling that the game could be mired in controversy and that one significant refereeing decision will decide who takes the spoils.
I will back my prediction from the outset that there will not be a slam and therefore Wales will win. However I think the Welsh side lacks the overall accuracy in its game to win by 7/8 points. I will therefore say a home a win by 2-4 points but with England able to claim the championship.